Our six hours in the jungle began at 10 in the morning on the side of the road on the north end of town. We met up with Cameron, his dog Rousy running around us as he led us up the damp road at the foot of the mountain. The road passed by small houses with large gardens, herds of cattle, and sweeping views of what was once dense old growth forest now cleared for grazing and development by the local honcho.
At two thousand dollars or more per tree, the temptation for profit looms large and leaves visible scars in the landscape and ecosystem. The hectares of cleared forest allows wind, flooding, and erosion through to areas that had never before had problems. Higher up the mountain, the road narrowed and steepened past the clearings and into untouched jungle. Rousy trotted along easily, turning around to see why we slow humans had stopped : usually water or breath. At a point where the trail split into three, along the left path, Cameron’s finca – plot of land – began and Rousy led the way.
The allure of this trip was for us the chance to explore almost untouched rain forest : to hike and see what animals we could. Cameron had hopes of finding and clearing a route to the waterfall on his property – the end goal of all this being starting an eco tour and hostel business for the more nature-loving crowd.
From the outside a rain forest seems imposing and dense, every visible nook and cranny filled with green or brown. From the inside, the density is lessened. The natural order of large trees, winding vines, and broad-leafed plants does not allow for the infinitely dense foliage seen from outside. There are paths to walk on, clearings to rest in, and, as with any good forest, and infinite number of directions to get lost in. As in many other forests, every path looks almost exactly the same as any other, and past a few meters the leaves and branches blend together with only the shape of the land as a guide.
The start of our trail was roughly cut and fairly slippery, riding the edge between downward slopes on either side. Handholds and careful footing were the rule, with special caution for trees baring needle-like spines waiting for a careless hand. Our first animal encounter also fell into the caution label : a lone bullet ant on a branch across the path.
At about an inch and a half long, this ant is generally not aggressive, but when provoked can deliver a sting that’s rated as one of the most painful in the world.
Eventually withering into nothingness the trail led us to a small clearing pointing to three or four possible paths, with no clear trail in sight.
We chose to go left down the slope we were currently on top of. This direction was steeper and muddier than the trail before it, but space between the trees marked a walkable line.
As we reached the bottom, it became clear that the patch of forest ahead of us, behind us, to the right and to the left, all looked identical. Fearing getting lost, we taped markers on trees to little effect. In the clearing at the bottom of the slope we found a small river leading to the right of our original trail. A group vote on direction ensued and we chose to turn right, following the slope along the river.
Some minutes of scrambling and climbing later the vegetation became too dense and the slope too steep to pass forcing us to turn around. Deciding to walk in the stream, we began with my
unceremonious slip down a meter of mud, landing shin deep in water. The others were more graceful in arriving.From now on our trek was up a clear river, deep enough at times to swim in though usually no more than ankle deep. Its curving route led us up and around the righthand slope, presenting fallen trees, rock faces, and wide pools as obstacles. While we were never in any immenent danger, at every turn the river gave us just enough challenge to keep the trip interesting and exciting. At all times there were birds audible but invisible -except when flying- overhead, and the bellowing calls of monkey troupes was a constant background effect. In the river we found a palm-sized river spider, to Natalie’s delight.
Of interest on our trek up the river were : several clusters of frog eggs encased in crystal clear jelly overhanging the river,
a small group of strawberry poison dart frog (Bastimentos color variety),and a simply massive tree fallen above the path.
A few small waterfall climbs, a scramble up a rock wall, and a scurry along a fallen tree ramp took us to the end of river, in this case in the form of dense, almost topiary-like vegetation that reduced the flow of water to a trickle and barred any attempts at passing.
Perhaps Cameron’s machette, stowed until now, could have gotten us through the tangle. At this point we were four hours in and not eager to get caught in the ever-looming rain. A quick backtrack and a zig-zagging climb up the mountain slope to the right of the river put us on what we thought would be the path out of the jungle. The path here was the steepest we had yet taken on, and only with the help of firmly rooted trees did we make it up. With no further trouble we popped out in the middle of our origina trail, now relatively easy and well cut.
For the end of our trip, in lieu of a waterfall, Cameron took us further up the mountain into neighboring land. Here we encountered clear views of Cahuito, the ocean, and the remainder of the vast jungle. Nearby we spotted a cacao tree with one ripe pod holding a dozen or so cacao beans. Each bean is roughly triangular and is covered in a thin layer of pulp. It is this pulp that you eat, and it tastes like pink starburst, but infinitely better. Sucking on our cacao fruit, we headed up the mountain even further to an abandoned navy sighting tower for the U.S.S Argon. Natalie quickly climbed the built-in ladder on the side, Cameron joined shortly after. Rousy and I stayed firmly on the ground.
Along the way back we saw several keel-billed toucans in the trees and in flight, and heard the song of the oropendola, a sort of up-pitched whoop and trill. As Rousy ran ahead of us, raptor birds of an undetermined type flew overhead, remnants of the yearly raptor migration numbering in the millions. Quickly descending the mountain we found ourselves back in town, adventured out and ready for lunch. The waterfall remained out of sight this time around, but the jungle trek was well worth it. The sights and sounds of this piece of rain forest were an unique and engrossing experience, and we look forward to Cameron finding the trail and starting his business – tree-houses surrounded by miles of rain forest waiting to be explored.